Lived in North Stoke near Wallingford
1st February 1872
23rd January 1936
Dame Clara Ellen Butt was born in Southwick, Sussex, the eldest daughter of Henry Butt, a captain in the mercantile marine and Clara Hook, whose great-grandfather was Theodore Hook (1788 – 1841), a writer and famous hoaxer.
Both parents were keen singers and encouraged Clara to nurture her voice which showed the richness and range for which she became famous from quite an early age. When she was almost 18, she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1890.
The scholarship was extended for another year, and she was sent to Paris for three months to study with V A Duvernoy. The cost was being met by Queen Victoria who heard of Clara’s talent from the Prince of Wales, then the College’s patron. She also studied with the baritone Jaques Bruhy in Paris, the soprano Etelka Gerster in Berlin and in Italy. Her debut was on 7 December 1892 at the Royal Albert Hall, as Ursula in Sullivan’s The Golden Legend.
Three days later, she sang the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo at the Lyceum Theatre - this production was staged by the students of the Royal College of Music. George Bernard Shaw was in the audience and wrote a critique in The World saying that she “far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained”.
She became very popular in a very short period of time, undoubtedly helped by her imposing presence on the stage, she was 6 feet 2 inches tall.
By 1898 she was living in London and performed at all major festivals. Edward Elgar composed the Sea Pictures song cycle for her for the Norwich Festival and conducted the performance. There is also evidence that Elgar wrote the part of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius with her voice in mind.
She married the baritone, Robert Kennerley Rumford (1870 – 1957) in 1900. They performed together and gave many highly successful and profitable concerts in Britain and its Empire as well as the United States.
During the first World War, Clara organised many charity concerts as well as singing in them. For all her wartime work she was awarded the DBE in 1920 which was also the year of her second appearance on the opera stage, singing Gluck’s Orfeo at Covent Garden with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting.
Dame Clara and Rumford had two sons and a daughter, both sons died before her. They lived in Hampstead from 1901 to 1929 after which they moved to North Stoke, firstly to Brooke Lodge and then to North Lodge where she died on 23 January 1936 after a painful illness.
Clara Butt: her life-story by Winifred Ponder. First published in 1928, now out of print but second hand copies available.
A biography of Clara Butt and more images of her.
Clara Butt’s grave can be visited in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in North Stoke.
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